By Michael Lewis
Since the age of 10, I have had a fascination with Cuba.
Why at 10? Well, that was the time of the Cuban missile crisis for several potentially deadly days in October 1962. My friends and I were convinced we were going to go to war with the Soviet Union/Cuba due to missile bases in the Caribbean country. Heck, I remember when this fifth grader heard a rumor at school one morning that a missile landed in Virginia.
Well, fortunately, we survived those times.
I was never obsessed with Cuba, but its lure grew on me because it was so mysterious. Once a popular vacation spot for many Americans – it is a scant 90 miles off the Florida coast — its politics and lifestyle were turned upside down by Fidel Castro and his followers and the Cuban Revolution of 1959
While covering the U.S. national teams I wrote about players defecting to the USA when Cuba participated in the Concacaf Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying and Olympic qualifying when competitions were hosted here. I wound up writing features about some of those players and how they escaped.
Moreover, I always wanted to journey to Cub and see what this mysterious Cuba land was all about.
Yours truly did get that opportunity, not once, not twice, but thrice. And every trip down there was an eye opener and different.
When the U.S. men’s national team played Cuba in a World Cup qualifier in 2008, I was approved for a visa. At that time, U.S. citizens were not allowed to venture to Cuba unless it was for humanitarian reasons or for journalistic purposes, among other reasons.
Like many journalists, I flew to Miami, stayed a night in a hotel near the airport before embarking on a flight in a small airplane the next morning. We probably were more outside our hotel room — at Hotel Nacional — than in them because we knew this was going to be perhaps the only time we were there. We had dinners at people’s houses — where they had their own restaurants, had some street food and visited as many sites and museums as we could in and around covering the USMNT.
One interesting note about the Hotel Nacional — for you aficionados of Godfather II — that is the hotel where a meeting of the big Mafioso took place in the movie (it was actually filmed in El Salvador). And as it turned out, it is where my aunt Ruthie and uncle Alvin honeymooned many, many years ago.
Before a bunch of journalists went out for dinner on our first night there, I wound up getting locked in my room temporarily. I couldn’t get the door open, whether it was the humidity affected the wooden door or air pressure. I finally did.
Since American dollars and credit cards were forbidden in Cuba, we had to use foreign currency such as Euros to pay for dinners, taxis and the like. By the second day I was having a personal money crisis.
In some respects, it seemed Cuba was a picture of 1959 that was never updated to the 21st century. Taxis were refurbished cars from that era. They worked just fine and the prices were extremely reasonable.
The USA writers got an opportunity to talk to Cuban Soccer Federation president Luis Hernandez in a special roundtable and I asked him about all the Cuban players who had defected over the years. The headline of my story? The Cuban missing player crisis.
The atmosphere at the stadium was the star at the game, not the match itself as we found several Americans, glad in Red, White and Blue and Stars and stripes masks to hide their identities because they had entered the country illegally.
Oh yeah, as for the game, Clint Dempsey scored the lone goal for a 1-0 USA win and three precious road points in Concacaf qualifying.
In 2012, I got a huge assignment to write about Cuban soccer for a magazine and ventured down to the Caribbean island again, this time with a photographer, Keith Furman. We took a flight from JFK — restrictions had been eased — and Mariela Castro, the niece of Fidel Castro and the daughter of Raul Castro, the first secretary of the Central Community of the Communist Party of Cuba, was onboard.
The first thing we wanted to do is walk the streets of Havana — old and new — to see what sort of atmosphere there was for soccer. While it was anecdotal evidence, we noticed many more children playing soccer than baseball, for which Cuba was known. We discovered a soccer bar and talked with the owner, who spoke enough English to have an interview. He pointed us to other soccer happenings in the country.
We attended a World Cup qualifier between Canada and Cuba; the Maple Leafs won. I spoke to Hernandez again and met other soccer personalities, players and sports media in Havana. It was a comprehensive information gathering process and one of my favorite stories I have ever written.
In 2015, I had yet one more opportunity when the Cosmos played the Cuban national team. They sandwiched Cosmos personnel, players, media and even Carmelo Anthony, the former Knick who was the owner of the new Puerto Rico team in the North American Soccer League. He slept for most of the trip in the front of the plane.
The Cosmos recorded a 4-1 victory in front of an estimated 18,000 fans.
Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer admitted he became a bit emotional during the playing of the national anthems. The crowd cheered after the anthem was played, which was surprising in itself in a nation that has been forbidden to many Americans for 54 years.
“I’m not big into politics and everything,” Maurer told me. “Everyone knows how the situation has been. A simple thing like that, people cheering, it gets a little emotional. It was a great moment and an honor to be a part of.”
You couldn’t blame Maurer getting a bit emotional. It was the first sporting event between the two countries since President Obama announced his plans to normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014.
Given what has transpired due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t know if I will have an opportunity for a fourth visit.
If that happens, I am secure in the knowledge that I have had the privilege to visit that land of mystery three times in three unforgettable trips.
Here’s my story for FrontRowSoccer.com about my 2012 trip to Cuba: